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High court revives gender bias suit by former town manager

December 30, 2021 GMT

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A former northern New Jersey township manager who claims she was fired because of her gender after a run-in with the town’s police chief had her case revived by the state Supreme Court Thursday.

The unanimous ruling reversed two lower courts that had ruled against Michele Meade in her suit against Livingston Township.

Meade, whom Thursday’s filing said was the only female town manager in Livingston’s history and the only town manager to be terminated involuntarily, claimed she was fired in 2016 and replaced with a male manager to appease the town’s male police chief, with whom she’d feuded.

The town claimed Meade was fired due to poor work performance. Meade is seeking compensation for lost wages and benefits and damage to her reputation, as well as punitive damages.

Thursday’s ruling sent the matter back to a lower court for trial.

“Ms. Meade and I are very grateful the Supreme Court saw that an injustice had occurred and that the case should be presented to a jury,” her attorney Christopher Lenzo said. “It’s an important decision in terms of recognizing that sometimes biased subordinates can actually undermine the employment of their supervisors.”

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Juan Fernandez, an attorney representing Livingston, said he and the town “respect the decision of the Supreme Court” but declined further comment.

According to Thursday’s filing, Meade and former Police Chief Craig Handschuch had a contentious working relationship centered around Handschuch’s performance.

In one incident in 2013, preschool teachers saw a man with a gun bag walking through a parking lot next to a community center and called police. Handschuch alerted the responders that it was a training exercise and that the man was an officer. An independent investigation faulted Handschuch and the emergency services unit for failing to communicate about the exercise.

Over time, according to the filing, the relationship deteriorated and Meade discussed disciplining Handschuch with the town council.

Meade claimed that the town’s mayor, who also served on the council, suggested to her that “maybe Chief Handschuch did not like reporting to a woman and should report to him as mayor instead,” according to the filing. Another council member testified he told other members that Meade wouldn’t be having problems with the chief “if her name was Michael,” though one of the other council members testified he considered the comment a joke.

An appeals court concluded that any discrimination against Meade “came from below,” referring to Handschuch, and that Meade “had the authority to eliminate the problem herself” since she had the authority to suspend or dismiss Handschuch.

In its ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court disagreed, writing that “although the Councilmembers alleged a number of areas of dissatisfaction with Meade’s performance, a reasonable jury could conclude that Meade’s gender played a role in the Council’s termination of her employment.”